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Review: Wes Craven's New Nightmare

The season finale of Telltale’s Walking Dead adventure game showed up on Playstation Network way late in the day. To kill time while my Wi-Fi chokes on the five-hour download, I logged into Netflix and watched Wes Craven’s New Nightmare for the first time.

I love memetic horror—the idea that belief can reshape reality, bring the things we fear to life, make them stronger, deadlier. Candyman, the Slender Man mythos, and even the Persona series all touch on this theme, but Craven’s metafictional revival of the franchise that he created offers one of the more interesting variations I’ve yet encountered. This time around, “Freddy Krueger” is actually an ancient, bloodthirsty demon that can only be defeated by trapping it in a narrative (the story of “Hansel and Gretel”, for example); it turns out the original A Nightmare on Elm Street was Craven’s subconscious attempt to imprison the monster, but the increasingly watered-down sequels have allowed it to break free and wreak havoc on the “real world.”

Obviously, New Nightmare belongs to the late ‘90s trend of slasher deconstructions (The Faculty, Final Destination, Craven’s own Scream), but the tone is so earnest that it never feels overly self-satisfied with its references and cameos. Heather Langenkamp, playing a fictionalized version of herself, keeps the action emotionally grounded, and it’s a genuine delight to see Robert Englund both in and out of his iconic makeup, clearly having the time of his life. And while some of the special effects (computer-generated and otherwise) haven’t aged particularly well, the production design is superb; Freddy’s nightmare realm has never looked more… well, nightmarish.

All in all, New Nightmare still doesn’t quite hold a candle to the first installment, but it’s a lovely homage, as well as a fascinating evolution of the series’ core concept. It experiments and innovates without discarding what made its predecessors successful, recycles a few old ingredients without resorting to pale imitation; anyone intending to direct a remake, reboot, or reimagining would do well to study Craven’s exemplary work here.

[Originally written May 30, 2017.]

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